By Edward McClelland
After World War II, the auto industry was booming, and General Motors was throwing up plants all around its hometown of Flint. This should have been a boon for the Vehicle City, but the problem was, none of the new factories were actually in Flint. GM needed land for sprawling, single-level assembly lines, and it wanted federal tax breaks for placing its plants far from urban populations, who would not be endangered by a Communist attack on America’s industrial might. So it built the Van Slyke Road Assembly complex in Flint Township, the Chevy parts distribution center in Swartz Creek, ten miles southwest of town, and the Ternstedt auto parts factory in Beecher, to the north.
But GM believed in economies of scale in government as well as manufacturing. So in 1958 the company threw its support behind the New Flint plan, a proposal to annex much of Genesee County to the city of Flint.
“We need one government unit that should include all of Genesee County,” an executive at AC Spark Plug enthused, as recounted in Andrew R. Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis. “Just think of all the money that would save.”
At the time, there were 45 municipalities, school districts. and townships in the Flint area. As it turned out, the inefficiency GM was hoping to defeat ended up defeating New Flint. Suburbanites united against the plan, determined to preserve their communities’ independence.
“The biggest majority out here are against it,” the Flint Township supervisor said. “They moved out to get away from the city as it was.”
New Flint never even reached the ballot.
Had the proposal passed, it’s less likely that modern-day Flint would have become so impoverished it was taken over by a state-appointed emergency manager, who filled its taps with lead-tainted water. And it’s more likely that other Michigan metro areas, such as nearby Detroit, would have followed its example, forming megacities diversified enough to weather the decline of the auto industry.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Flint lost more than half its population in the last 50 years. After the foreclosure crisis hit, the average home sale price dropped to $14,000, and the city was so broke it laid off a third of the police force, resulting in a record murder rate in 2010. Detroit became the first American city to drop below a million people, and the first since the Great Depression to go bankrupt. It’s now an international symbol of urban decay, a destination for ruin porn photographers from around the world. Michigan now leads the nation in cities under state supervision.
The Flint water crisis was not simply caused by an arrogant, bottom-line focused governor who was willing to sacrifice the health of Flintstones to save money. It is the culmination of decades of defunding, disempowering, and demonizing Michigan’s cities.
Michigan has the most decrepit cities in the United States, if not the developed world. They’re the poorest, the most abandoned, the most violent.
Michigan has the most decrepit cities in the United States, if not the developed world. They’re the poorest, the most abandoned, the most violent. It’s not just a result of neglect. It’s a result of policy. Time after time, Michiganders have said no to proposals that could have put their cities in a state of financial solvency. The defeat of New Flint was only the beginning. In the 1970s, legislators shot down Republican Gov. William Milliken’s plan to share tax revenue with Detroit. In the 1990s, Detroit cut its income tax rate in exchange for state revenue sharing, then got stiffed on the deal, contributing to its bankruptcy. According to a study by Michigan State University, constitutional amendments passed in 1978 and 1994 imposed the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the nation, placing “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.”
“Michigan incubates financial stress among its local governments,” the study concludes. “Michigan’s particular mix of stringent limitations on local revenue and its relatively low level of financial assistance to cities, coupled with spending pressures stemming from spiking local service burdens and increased labor costs, creates conditions that drive up the potential for local fiscal distress.”
Craig Ruff, the retired president of Lansing’s Public Sector Consultants, calls the gutting of urban Michigan “decitification.”
“Against the grain of history and in contrast to most populous states, the last couple of generations of Michiganians have eschewed cities. Of our 20 most populous cities, 15 lost people between 2000 and 2010,” Ruff wrote in Dome magazine. “Why Michiganians fled cities, in defiance of a long global and current national experience, unsettles me greatly. It is terribly destructive economically. You cannot explain cities’ depopulation simply because a downturn of this or that industry, important as that often is. Abandoning cities is damn near unique to Michigan (although one easily can point to other once-powerful cities, such as Cleveland, that share our cities’ distress) and requires you to suspend economic logic and the historical record.”
So why is decitification “damn near unique” to Michigan, what are the consequences, and what can be done about it?
Racism is certainly a big reason. In 1967, Detroit experienced the most destructive of that decade’s urban riots, an insurrection so violent it required the 82nd Airborne Division to put down. The slow leakage of whites from the city, which had begun in the 1950s, turned into a torrent, jumping from 20,000 a year to 80,000. By 1973, Detroit was a black majority city. That year, it elected a Black Power mayor, Coleman Young, who understood that the key to remaining in power was making the city as black as possible. In his inaugural address, he issued “a forward warning now to all dope pushers, to all ripoff artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit 8 Mile Road. And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, of if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges: Hit the road.”
Whites took this to mean they were no longer welcome. By the end of Young’s 20 years in office, the city was 82 percent black, and Detroit was the second-most segregated metro area in the United States, after Cleveland. (The difference between a segregated metro area, such as Detroit, and a segregated city, such as Chicago, is that in Chicago, middle- and upper-class whites remain in the city, generating tax revenues that at least somewhat support poorer neighborhoods.)
“The distinguishing feature of Young’s tenure was that as the years went on, he found himself in control of less and less,” wrote Paul Clemens in Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir. “His grip on Detroit tightened and the citizenry slipped between his fingers, with deposits settling north of 8 Mile or west of Telegraph.”
As population dwindles, so does political power. Detroit lost legislative seats to the suburbs even as antagonism between Detroiters and suburbanites grew. When Gov. William Milliken proposed a $40 million “distressed cities” bill to help Detroit through the 1982 recession, the legislature rejected it. Milliken passed funding for a metropolitan light rail system, but several legislators who voted “aye” lost their seats, and it was never built. In the 1950s, when Detroit contained 29 percent of the state’s population, the city dictated state policy. Now it contains seven percent of the population, and the African-Americans and poor whites who remain are almost exclusively Democrats. Michigan’s last Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, was reluctant to impose an emergency manager on Detroit, because its voters were part of her electoral coalition. But in 2010 the city only gave Snyder 5 percent of his vote, so he had nothing to lose politically by stripping its mayor and city council of power. Same with Flint, Benton Harbor, and Pontiac. At one point during Snyder’s tenure, 80 percent of African-Americans in Michigan lived in cities controlled by an emergency manager.
L. Brooks Patterson, who started his political career as an anti-busing activist and is now executive of suburban Oakland County, once said, “I don’t give a damn about Detroit. It has no direct bearing on my quality of life. If I never crossed 8 Mile again I wouldn’t be bereft of anything.”Patterson is wrong about that, because Detroit’s decay has contributed to Michigan’s brain drain. At my alma mater, Michigan State University, half the graduates leave the state immediately upon graduation. Their number one destination is Chicago, which offers young people everything Detroit doesn’t: jobs, density, and good public transportation. I once asked a University of Michigan graduate living in Chicago whether he was more likely to run into a classmate there, or in his hometown of Detroit. He seemed startled.
“Here, of course,” he said.
“If you want to be another yuppie, move to Chicago,” Gov. Snyder told Michigan college graduates in 2014. “If you want to build something, move to Detroit.”
Detroit is no longer a city, in the sense of a self-supporting entity: It’s the lower-class district of a metropolitan area, abandoned to its dwindling devices.
Detroit is more attractive to young people than it was a decade ago, with its cheap rents and empty lots and storefronts begging to be filled with gardens and art galleries. But the city continues to lose population, dropping from 713,000 to 680,000 so far this decade.
The fact is, Detroit is no longer a viable municipality. Its median household income of $27,862 is half the national average. Despite its population crash, Detroit is the same size it was in the ’50s. So the police still need to patrol 140 square miles of streets, the public works department needs to pave those streets, and the water system still needs to maintain the network of pipes underneath. But property tax revenues have decreased 20 percent since 2008 – even though Detroit has some of the highest taxes in Michigan: a 2.4 percent income tax rate and a 1.3 percent property tax rate.
For all Detroiters pay, 40 percent of their streetlights are burned out, and their understaffed police department solves only 8.7 percent of its cases – one reason Detroit has the highest crime rate of any big city. The city is in a financial death spiral: so overtaxed and unlivable that most people who can afford to get out are moving to the suburbs, further reducing the tax base and requiring more cuts. Detroit is no longer a city, in the sense of a self-supporting entity: It’s the lower-class district of a metropolitan area, abandoned to its dwindling devices.
After Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, Snyder engineered a $350 state aid package so the city could pay retirees their pensions. But that wouldn’t have been necessary if the state had simply met its revenue sharing obligations. During the economic troubles of the 2000s, when Michigan was mired in a decade-long recession, Detroit has missed out on $200 million a year in state money. The city began running budget deficits in 2004-05, and ended up $326 million in the red by 2013.
The emergency managers Snyder imposed on Detroit and Flint had no chance of restoring those cities to solvency. Forced austerity can’t solve financial problems caused by a low tax base and a lack of revenue sharing.Since Detroit cannot maintain the accouterments of a modern American city with its current tax base, the most practical solution to its problems is regional consolidation. Detroit should merge with its suburbs, as Miami, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Charlotte have done. America’s most dynamic cities are Sunbelt metropolises that grow geographically as their populations expand. Detroit’s borders have not expanded since 1924. The city is hemmed in by suburbs and townships, an obsolete and uniquely Midwestern form of government which was established by the Northwest Ordinance in the 19th century, and is still frustrating regional cooperation and municipal growth in the 21st.
A megacity composed of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties would contain 3.9 million people, making it the second-largest city in the United States. Detroit could consolidate its police and fire services — which consume nearly 60 percent of its general fund budget — with surrounding departments. At this point, Detroit wouldn’t be absorbing the suburbs, the suburbs would be absorbing Detroit. Detroit would constitute one-sixth of a megacity, hardly enough to dominate it politically, or drag it down financially. The suburbs have already taken in two-thirds of Detroit, with more moving out every year, straining suburban resources and unbalancing southeast Michigan’s land use patterns. This might end the exodus.
I’m not a Detroiter, but I’ve lived all over the state – in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Bay City, and New Buffalo. I’ve always believed a strong Detroit is essential to a strong Michigan, and I’ve always been annoyed by the inability of the city and its suburbs to work together. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, a possible candidate for governor in 2018, is a champion of what he calls “legacy cities” – urban cores left behind by the suburbanization of the late 20th century.
I’ve always believed a strong Detroit is essential to a strong Michigan, and I’ve always been annoyed by the inability of the city and its suburbs to work together.
“In Michigan, we treat a city that is the core of a region as if its success or failure is of no consequence to the success or failure of the whole region,” Kildee told Next City in a recent interview. “Or, if you want to take that to the next layer, that the success of Michigan’s cities are of no consequence when considering the success of the state in general. I think having a municipal finance system that is not so completely dependent on only locally generated tax revenue is really important. It’s fine when everything is going well. But when factors that are beyond the control of a place like Flint undermine the economy — like globalization and the loss of manufacturing — the communities that were the hosts for that economic activity are much more at risk of having dramatic losses in their tax base. They have a precipitous drop in the resources available, which fuels more people leaving. It becomes a set of circumstances that’s almost impossible to stop.”
Almost half a century ago, Flint had a chance to become a sustainable city. Now, Flint has been reduced to the Third World situation of lacking potable water — a worldwide disgrace for Michigan. There’s a lot of talk of “fixing Flint,” by replacing the city’s water pipes. But Michigan also needs to fix its municipal policy, so the disasters that befell Flint and Detroit never happen again.
Edward McClelland is the author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President and Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland. Ted’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, Slate, and the Nation. McClelland also authored How To Talk Midwestern coming from Belt Publishing in November 2016.